Medieval History Database - About This Project -
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Medieval History Database - About This Project

About the Medieval History Database

The Medieval History Database (MHDB) is designed as a collection of translations, biographies, reviews, governmental, financial and military records, 3D reproductions, academic news and other material related to medieval history.

Begun in 2005, originally intended as standalone software, the database is currently being redesigned and expanded as primarily an online collection, partly a searchable database and partly standard HTML articles combined with online videos and interactive WebGL features.

Volunteers willing to help with the project are welcome to use the contact form to describe your background in medieval history or software development, and planned contribution to the database.

In its earliest years, the software was based on a voxel system which used the CPU only. In 2009 this was replaced by a polygonal system using the video card. Work on the project accelerated in 2011 with the switch to a better 3D graphics platform and more realistic video effects. In 2020 the process of adapting the project to an online format began, with the goal of combining HTML (i.e. text-based articles) with WebGL applications (full software running inside a sub-window within an HTML webpage). As the project progresses, it will eventually allow integration of databases and scholarly articles with 3D interactive displays : for example, a WebGL application could display a "walkable" model of Hever Castle with clickable areas which link to articles on different parts of the castle, events that took place there, database entries such as financial records from the castle, or lists of books on the subject along with reviews.

A primary goal is to make history "come to life" via a combination of 3D reconstructions and access to detailed written records associated with various locations.

Today, so many extant medieval buildings are either in ruins or in a form which has been drastically altered over time. But there are often surviving paintings or written descriptions which give us a fairly clear idea of what these locations looked like in their prime. Researching the evidence requires years of labor and usually a knowledge of the original languages. Putting together 3D models and programming software to display the geometry in vivid realism is also extremely time-consuming. But the final result is the ability to explore medieval towns, cathedrals, and other locations, the closest we can come to going back in time.

The visual effects that are currently programmed include projected light from stained glass windows (creating glowing patches of color on objects); shafts of light which show dust suspended in the air (creating a realistic haze effect); procedurally-generated surfaces based on volumetric patterns; simulation of the effects of light on different materials such as wood, metal, glass, and stone; realistic water surfaces with reflection effects which vary based on viewing angle, tinting of underwater objects based on suspended matter in the water, simulation of water flow, surface perturbation and surface flotsam, and other effects.

The original centerpiece of the project, the 3D reproductions of historical sites, is designed to allow users to click on buildings or other structures to activate a window displaying historical source documents related to that location, such as military records, financial records, and eyewitness accounts. The database thereby links together two types of historical evidence : the written sources and 3D reconstructions of what these locations may have looked like at the time.

The screenshot at left shows a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary on top of the central turret of the massive, ornate organ at Rheims cathedral in 1429, when Charles VII was crowned there with Joan of Arc by his side.

The screenshot at right shows an inn at Orleans, France, with a gilded deer above its door.

As an example of how the two parts of the database are integrated: clicking on the street at Orleans called the "Rue des Hostelleries" brings up an account of an English artillery attack on 14 February 1429 which damaged an inn called the "Hostel de la Teste Noire" and killed three civilians in the street outside (see screenshot at right of the text window overlaid on the Rue des Hostelleries).

The database also contains military unit records - troop inspection documents, unit payment records, and the like. The screenshot at right shows a percentage of the French Royal units which fought at Orleans during the siege, listing the commander and number of men-at-arms and projectile troops (mostly crossbowmen).

In many cases, the surviving records are complete enough to allow us to track every small unit as it was deployed from one place to the next or split into sub-units. For example, Henry de Lisle's unit at Orleans consisted of 42 men-at-arms and 129 mounted archers when the unit's contract was renegotiated after his brother and co-commander Lancelot de Lisle was killed on 29 January 1429. The unit was subsequently divided into two sub-units a bit later in the siege after taking further casualties. One sub-unit consisted of Henry himself plus nineteen men-at-arms and 62 archers, stationed as part of the English garrison of Les Tourelles at the southern end of Orleans' bridge. The other sub-unit consisted of twenty men-at-arms and 64 archers and was deployed in other fortresses encircling Orleans.

The unit inspection documents often list the names of each soldier, at least for the men-at-arms and projectile troops. This often brings the subject to life in a way that the vague battle summaries in chronicle sources rarely do.

This project also attempts to render the 3D models with as much detail as possible in order to create a more realistic appearance. Most 3D software allows the video card to blur out surface textures as the viewer gets closer, since that's what video cards are programmed to do; but this project's software adds tiny details such as wood grain, miniscule bumps, dents, scratches, and the like, thereby increasing the detail as the viewer gets closer rather than the reverse (see the sequence of screenshots at right, which show a sculpture of a lion's head with individual bumps and nicks becoming visible as the software zooms in closer).

The software was recently modified to have the capability of replacing the usual flat "textures" (2D images that are overlaid on the surface of 3D geometry), instead using fully volumetric patterns that can be generated on-the-fly and treated as if they extend through an entire object's volume. This is especially useful for wood, marble, and other materials that have volumetric patterns in real life. For example, below is a screenshot of a wooden relief carving using this graphics technique:

The following are a selection of screenshots from various 3D models, including Orleans and the cathedral at Rheims as it may have looked in 1429. The latter show an early model of the cathedral's organ, which was substantially different than the one there today. In 1429 the organ had three "turrets" separated by flat panels which were apparently subdivided into two sections at slightly different angles.
The current organ model contains about 5.2 million polygons, but usually renders at an acceptable framerate even on older computers, although the framerate slows dramatically when the entire organ is in view.

Here are some screenshots:


The organ in the cathedral at Rheims:

Click here for more screenshots.

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